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A Game of Drones

Precision-guided mythology masks a brutal truth.

America’s recent foreign policy has been enabled by a central idea: the United States does things differently. It wages wars differently. It suspends habeas corpus sparingly and with great restraint. It encroaches on liberties more gingerly. And it puts military men and women at risk with a respectful selectivity. To advance this mythology, the federal government has, time and again, insisted that it acts with painstaking precision when it resorts to military intervention or security-state measures at home. This, officials have consistently suggested, is the American distinction.

Precision is what still seems to separate the United States from the Third World, as U.S. actions become increasingly similar to those often employed by underdeveloped countries. The myth justifies a surviving claim to global distinction, despite the errors, violations, and setbacks of the post-9/11 era. The U.S. may torture detainees like a Latin American dictatorship. It may subject its own people to surveillance of the sort once identified with the Eastern Bloc. And it may resort to violence as swiftly as any inner-city gang. But America’s government does these things with surgical exactitude, carefully distinguishing guilty from innocent. Confidence in this precision provides a buffer; it separates us from them. But the precision defense rests on an unstable pretense, as America’s escalating drone war shows.

President Obama has declared that the extensive drone campaign in Pakistan is a “targeted, focused effort” that “has not caused a huge number of civilian casualties.” But the evidence shows that drones are not precise instruments of war: the idea that the bad guys can be zeroed in on robotically from the air was always improbable in theory and has proved to be untenable in practice.

An in-depth, field-based investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (on behalf of the UK’s Sunday Times) found in February that “since Obama took office three years ago, between 282 and 535 civilians have been credibly reported as killed including more than 60 children.” The bureau notes that the drone attacks were started under the Bush administration in 2004 and have stepped up significantly under Obama. There had been 260 strikes by unmanned Predators or Reapers in Pakistan under Obama’s administration—averaging one every four days.

The report echoes the July 2009 estimates of Daniel L. Byman, senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy: “Sourcing on civilian deaths is weak and the numbers are often exaggerated, but more than 600 civilians are likely to have died from the attacks. That number suggests that for every militant killed, 10 or so civilians also died.”

The bureau reported another aspect of the drone attacks that is perhaps just as alarming as the raw numbers of innocent people they slaughter: it found that U.S. unmanned aircraft had killed dozens of civilians who had rushed to help other victims. A three-month investigation including eyewitness reports indicates that at least 50 civilians were killed in follow-up strikes when they had gone to the aid of others.

Americans have tired of the Afghan conflict and its expense, yet they remain all too willing to continue the war robotically, via the bluntest of martial instruments—the drone. According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted in February, 78 percent of the public supports Obama’s drawdown plan, scheduled to remove most U.S. forces from Afghanistan by 2014. But the same poll found that 83 percent of Americans approve of Obama’s escalated drone policy. Even 77 percent of self-identified “liberal Democrats” supported the president’s drone warfare.

Killing foreigners—and a smattering of U.S. citizens—by way of drone remains popular because much of the public has yet to accept the truth that the use of drones, the fury and collateral damage they cause in foreign lands, further entrenches America in conflict with the Muslim world. Far from being an alternative to boots on the ground, this form of war—painless for those who wage it, but devastating to civilians—promises to be a prelude to further terrorism, followed by yet more efforts to impose American order on rogue states and regions.

With the general election season getting underway, who will challenge the myth of U.S. precision in dealing death from above? No candidate who has a chance of winning is taking such a stand, and voters are not demanding they do so. The American people appear preoccupied with manufactured political squabbling. When they tire of that, many retire to the realm of celluloid reality, where further myths of clean-cut heroes who kill with the utmost discrimination seep deeper into the popular consciousness.

Ximena Ortiz is former executive editor of The National Interest and author of the forthcoming The Shock and Awing of America: Chronicling the Third Worlding of a Once Great Power.